Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Guest Post: Death of the Modern Methuselah

This post first appeared on Today In Alternate History.


On 29 June, 1934, the world-famous centenarian Zaro Aga died in Istanbul Province, Turkey. Aged 170 years, 133 days the so-called "Giant Kurd" was the longest-living person in recorded history and considered the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

A global celebrity who had recently toured America, his dead body was immediately sent back to the United States. This examination was for verification by leading scientists with expertise in the ageing process. Various tests (including X-Rays) by these gerontologists were conducted, which identified little apart form the presence of an unusually large heart. However, in addition to the authentication of his birth certificate, his claims to have met Napoleon were independently validated. His age was then certified by the American actuary and gerontology researcher Walter Bowerman in a report published in 1939.

Convinced of Aga's incredible age, Bowerman then travelled to southwest China to investigate the claims that a herbalist and martial arts specialist called Li Ching-Yuen had lived to 252 years old. This was corroborated after he inspected Chinese government records that included letters of congratulations for his 150th and 200th birthdays and interviewing his neighbours, who asserted that their grandfathers knew him when they were boys and that he at that time was a grown man.

The science of gerontology rapidly advanced after Bowerman returned to the United States on the eve of World War II. The tentative conclusion validated Continuity Theory. This theory proposed that adaptive strategies enabled Zaro Aga and Li Ching-Yuen to continue the same energetic behaviours beyond the normal limitations of old age.

By the time that Bowerman died in November 1974, widespread testing of these adaptive strategies had been vigorously conducted for over 25 years. There was no evidence that extended longevity was inherited. Instead, gerontologists concluded that lifespans of beyond 150 were dependent upon a complex series of additional factors that included birth geography, physiology as well as exercise, behavior , and diet.

Unable to reproduce the phenomena in the laboratory, Methuselah Communities were established in Kurdistan and southwest China in an attempt to recreate exactly the same sets of breeding conditions. At the time of writing, it is widely predicted that these long-lived human beings will crew the space colonization ships of the future. But until scientists can "bottle" the so-called Aga-Ching-Yuen factor, such a scheme could only augment the life-span of the first generation crew members.

Author's Note:

In reality, Bowerman validated the claim of Delina Filkins to be 113 and advocated that actuarial tables have an upper cutoff of between 115 and 120 years. He concluded that Aga was around 97, not 157. He never travelled to China. Meanwhile, Li Ching-Yuen claims are considered to be a myth by gerontologists and Aga himself refused to believe them.

Provine's Addendum:

 Coming at the problem of aging from another, environmental, angle, scientists Tel Aviv University used experimental hyperbaric treatments with high-oxygen environments that extended telomeres (the edges of DNA that shorten over time, believed to be a major component of aging) as well as improving brain function. This contributed to the hopes of using long-lived humans aboard spacecraft, where the environment was already artificially created and controlled. Even without issues of Relativity with interstellar craft reaching planets in distant solar systems, it seemed that someday it would be commonplace for an old astronaut to return to Earth to meet his great-great-great-great-grandchildren.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Guest Post: Old Snapping Turtle joins the Battle of New York

This post first appeared on Today In Alternate History.

July 13, 1863

Lincoln's reward to General George Meade for losing the Battle of Gettysburg and then presenting him with an unwelcome Confederate peace offer was to dispatch "Old Snapping Turtle" to New York City to restore order.

Meade was the victim of bluffer's luck but for Dixie, the Army of Northern Virginia's bold thrust into Maryland and Pennsylvania had been a tactical masterstroke by Robert E. Lee. And yet the real hero of the hour was not Lee but his chief advisor, General James Longstreet, who had stepped into the gap left by Stonewall Jackson's death after Chancellorsville. Longstreet had observantly noticed that the Confederate shells were exploding behind Union lines. This was due to faulty timing in the detonators, but he had adjusted for this malfunction by re-targeting the shells slightly in front of the lines. After a huge battery that lasted an hour and consumed the entire stock of Confederate ammunition, sappers were sent in to destroy what remained of a low stone wall that was protecting Federal troops. Thanks to the vigilance of Longstreet, the central assault known to history as Pickett's Charge carried the victory even if the two days of attacks on the flanks had been hugely costly.

This so-called "High Water Mark of the Confederacy" disguised the truth of their dire predicament. Lee's peace offer letter itself was something of a bluff, much as the invasion of the border states had really been a glorified raid. There was no realistic prospect of a strike upon Washington City. Some optimists might have hoped that Gettysburg would prove to be another Saratoga in which the glorious patriot victory had encouraged French intervention into the revolutionary war, but the real military situation was hopeless. General Pemberton and his army were in the final phases of starvation at Vicksburg. Within the next few days, the city fell, and then Port Hudson followed, giving the Federals control of the vitally important Mississippi River and cutting the Confederacy in half. Lee's campaign in Pennsylvania had been a desperate attempt to relieve pressure on the Union campaign in the West. This was unsuccessful, but Lee did put Lincoln under intense pressure in the East.

The enraged Lincoln would change commanders once again, turning to the ruthless General Ulysses S. Grant with orders to irreversibly destroy Dixie and eliminate any potential for a "Lost Cause" legacy. Grant entertained a wicked plan to burn Richmond to the ground before the November election, but he lacked forces to enact that retribution. There was an even bigger immediate problem of riots opposing the draft in the North. Lincoln had intended to send units of the Army of the Potomac to quell the draft riots in New York City, but these men were now either dead or in Confederate prisoner of war camps.

Meade arrived during violent disturbances in Lower Manhattan by working-class white men who feared loss of earnings to free black people. Also, they did not share the desire to die for the cause Lincoln and Grant felt they should. Unable to restore order, the riots would quickly spread to other Northern cities, and Grant's limited forces would be dispatched to keep the peace.

The Confederacy would collapse in the spring of 1865, but by then Lincoln had been voted out of office because his war-time strategies had failed. His successor George McClellan would win the war; however, the fruits of his victory would be bitter. The balance of political forces in US Congress prevented the Union from imposing the kind of long-term reconstruction program that the discredited Lincoln hoped would change the south forever. Worse still, the racial violence in the Northern cities had even prevented him from following through on the Emancipation Proclamation. Unsuccessful on the battlefield, he had quite simply failed to hold the Union together as he had promised. As a result, his legacy was deeply tarnished, and he would be considered in the lower ranks of presidents, only slightly above his hapless predecessor James Buchanan.

Author's Note:

In reality, Lincoln diverted several regiments of militia and volunteer troops after the Battle of Gettysburg to control the city. But the situation only improved when assistant provost-marshal-general Robert Nugent received word from his superior officer, Colonel James Barnet Fry, to postpone the draft. As this news appeared in newspapers, some rioters stayed home. But some of the militias began to return and used harsh measures against the remaining mobs.

Provine's Addendum:

The "Black Question" became one of the biggest political issues of the 1870s. Slavery was ended long before the war, which left many African Americans still enslaved without knowing they had been freed until June of 1865. With bitter oppression in the South, no welcome in the north, and only a few organizations offering transport to Liberia, the freedmen looked west to start their own homes.. "Exodusters" left the South by the hundreds of thousands, establishing all-Black communities in Kansas and the Nebraska Territory. Even the Unassigned Lands of central Indian Territory, which had at one time was expected to become reservations of displaced Native American tribes, became opened by act of Congress from leaders fearful there might not be land available to whites looking to settle. By the twentieth century, a bloc of Black-led states in the West were a political force on the national level.

With a severe labor shortage in the South, it became a magnet for immigrants as well as opportunity-seeking Northerners. Its economy recovered far more quickly than it would have with severe devastation as Lincoln and Grant had proposed, and the influx of carpetbaggers led to much-needed investment. Times led to strange bedfellows, such as George Meade and James Longstreet, once opponents at Gettysburg, becoming allies in the proposition for the coastal railway connecting New Orleans and Monterrey, Mexico. 

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